By Hayley Milon Bour
As many parents await the return to in-person learning for Loudoun County Public Schools, families with students with ADHD and other executive function disorders are wrestling with the complications and frustrations that come with virtual learning.
The school division is returning students to the classroom in stages with a hybrid learning schedule consisting of both virtual and in-person learning. Special Education students who are provided with the most demanding level of services will get priority to return to in-person learning in December and January. Many parents are wondering how much longer they will need to serve as surrogate educators at home to students who don’t yet meet the criteria to return.
According to Krista Hopp, director of Connected Pathways Coaching, virtual learning is particularly challenging for students with learning disabilities such as executive function disorders. Navigating the educational technology is daunting for most learners.
“Teachers are trying to be really creative and they’re using lots of different platforms, but when you have students with learning disabilities or ADHD, executive functions are difficult,” Hopp said.
The school division develops Individualized Educational Plans to students who meet certain criteria. IEPs guarantee students customized instruction and one-on-one time with teachers. Some conditions provided by an IEP can’t be accommodated within the virtual system. Administrators say that the Special Education department is doing everything possible to accommodate the needs the roughly 9,200 students in its Special Education programs.
On the virtual platform, though, parents say students are less likely to seek guidance and extra help available to them.
Melody Meehan has a son with an IEP at Brambleton Middle School. He spends time in a small group setting after classes to accommodate his ADHD. During distance learning though, the small group is optional, and her son is more likely to log off than to pursue the extra help. Instead, Meehan or her husband sit next to their son every day from 8:45 a.m. until 3:20 p.m. to keep him on task.
“It’s really hard. My wish is that his case manager or small group would pull him aside,” Meehan said. “I can’t do this forever.”
Despite the Meehan’s efforts, she still feels that the distance learning accommodations are causing her son to fall behind.
“I’m scared this year is a wash and he won’t be prepared for 8th grade,” she said.
Meehan isn’t alone. Many parents of students in special education programs would like to see more outreach from educators to double-down on concepts taught in class. One parent, who asked not to be publicly identified, has a 14-year-old son at Potomac Falls High School with ADHD and Asperger’s.
“There’s a lot that gets lost in translation when it comes to teaching a student like my son. In virtual, information goes more quickly and no one wants to raise their hand and say ‘Can you repeat that?’” she said.
She is overseeing her son’s coursework, writing out his assignments, and paying for weekly tutoring sessions. More mandatory sessions with teachers after class would ease her burden throughout the day.
“I would love to see more teaching tools at home. There’s only so much a mom can do and these kids don’t want to learn from mom.”
Students also feel an increased anxiety in an online classroom, and are often reluctant to turn on their webcams and engage with their teachers and classmates. With technology at their fingertips, students are posed with endless distractions. Hopp cautions that learners with executive function disorders should take breaks throughout the day away from technology. Video games and social media provide a burst of dopamine to the brain that makes it hard to return to learning mode.
Many of Hopp’s clients struggle with the Schoology platform that the school division uses. Teachers tend to customize their classes with additional technology platforms, causing confusion for learners. Hopp said students need technological consistency throughout their courses.
Some of the technologies also create extra work for parents, which some say is unnecessary. Meehan and her husband spent nearly an hour trying to upload a video for their son’s P.E. class. Parents have pressed for some leniency from teachers when it comes to virtual assignments.
Administrators at the Department of Special Education are aware of the challenges families face at home using virtual learning. The department released a series of how-to information on its website.
Special Education Director Patricia Nelson spearheaded the transition to virtual learning.
“Students have to literally relearn expectations in a digital world and all of that has to translate to the home for students,” Nelson said.
Nelson and her staff are proud of teachers who have had to get creative while transitioning to the virtual platform.
“Since March they have had to work really hard and be ongoing with continuing professional development,” she said.
Some families are choosing other school choices all together.
An Ashburn mother, who also asked to remain anonymous, pulled her 10th grader out of Stone Bridge High School this fall and instead enrolled him in the Virginia Virtual Academy, a free homeschooling program. She found that the homeschooling platform was more accommodating for her son’s ADHD than LCPS’s virtual plan.
“I needed my son to have structure and accountability resources because with virtual learning, there’s a detached feeling,” she said. “The LCPS teachers are not trained to do virtual.”
Virginia Virtual Academy provides students with books and classroom tools such as rulers and microscopes. Trained counselors keep students on track. Most credits from the academy transfer to the LCPS curriculum. The mother plans to ride out the pandemic and then transfer her son back to Stone Bridge once in-person learning resumes.
Busy parents, who are juggling careers and distance learning, continue to look for solutions and hacks for at-home learning.
Hopp cautions that students require individualized setups. Some learners need total silence to concentrate, while others thrive doing schoolwork in noisier areas such as at the kitchen table. When possible, don’t allow students to do their work in their bedrooms, she said. “That’s confusing to the brain: Is it time to chill and relax or is it time to work?”
Families have had to dip into their own pockets to make modifications to their homes, building home offices and study spaces.
While many parents are working from home throughout the day and aren’t available to oversee most coursework, Hopp said it may be helpful to simply conduct their own work alongside students.
“In the world of ADHD, there’s a thing called a body double. Sometimes our kids benefit from us working on our computers, while they’re working on their stuff. Just having us sitting there helps them be accountable,” Hopp said.
Students lack the face-to-face interaction that typically provides a social stimulation and a break from learning during the school day. If parents are unable to sit with their children, Hopp recommends finding a college student in the neighborhood who can step in.